The New Orleans Saints are coming off three straight road games, returning to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this Sunday to host the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Saints went 2-1 in those contests, despite some offensive inconsistencies that caused them to average less than 17 points during that three game stretch. A primary reason that they pulled off those two wins was because of the standout play of their defense.
The 12-2 Saints have not allowed an opponent to score more than 17 points in the last six games, and have held 9 of their 14 opponents to 20 points or less. New Orleans ranks 11th in total defense, surrendering 342 yards per game, and they have forced 17 turnovers in their last eight contests. They now face one of the league's most dangerous offenses in the 8-5-1 Steelers, who are fighting for a playoff berth.
Pittsburgh ranks 4th in total offense, averaging 406 yards and 27.4 points per game. Their offense is littered with Pro Bowl caliber players, and two potential Hall of Famers, capable of putting up points on any defense they face. Let's have a look at how the underrated New Orleans defense matches up against one of the league's most potent offenses.
SAINTS PASS DEFENSE vs. STEELERS PASS OFFENSE
New Orleans’ pass defense has rebounded from early season breakdowns to hold their last two opponents to less than 175 yards passing and five of their last six foes to less than 210 yards through the air. The Saints still rank only 28th against the pass, but have created turnovers and disruption, while able to come up with crucial plays at big moments. The disruption starts up front, where a talented defensive line has been a key to 45 sacks.
All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan leads the Saints with 12 sacks and 18 quarterback hits, continuing to show that he's one of the best all-around edge defenders in the NFL. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has been a force inside, adding 8 sacks and 15 quarterback hits, showing exactly why the team selected him in the first round of the 2016 draft. Jordan and Rankins have been nearly unblockable at times, and have been well complimented by other members of a deep line. Rookie first rounder Marcus Davenport and Alex Okafor have combined for 8 sacks from the other defensive end position, tackle David Onyemata has contributed 4 sacks of his own, and the entire line has managed to apply consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The Saints’ linebackers are effective blitzers, and have added 8 more sacks, but have taken on an even bigger role in pass coverage. Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and A.J. Klein are a versatile and athletic group that have been able to eliminate opposing tight ends and running backs from being effective as receivers. The Saints have rebounded from early season coverage woes and been able to eliminate big plays against them, matching up with some of the NFL's better receivers. An October trade for cornerback Eli Apple gave New Orleans a formidable coverage combination, along with Marshon Lattimore, to hold up against nearly every receiving corps they face. The two have combined for 4 of the team's 12 interceptions. More importantly than that, they have been able to take on man coverage duties and hold up well enough to allow coordinator Dennis Allen to employ more aggressive defensive packages.
The defense has also gotten solid safety play of late from Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams, who have provided good deep coverage and have the athleticism to make plays all over the field. Cornerback P.J. Williams has seen less snaps since the acquisition of Apple, but has given the defense capable coverage from the slot, something that will be key against a deep Pittsburgh receiving corps.
Pittsburgh's 3rd ranked passing attack averages 310 yards per game, and has the most passing attempts in the league. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has completed 67% of his passes and thrown 30 touchdowns, but has also thrown 15 interceptions, many late in games or at crippling moments. Roethlisberger is no longer as mobile as he once was, but still can escape the rush well, and is protected by one of the better offensive lines in the league. He has been sacked just 20 times, and has often been given the time to distribute the ball to one of the NFL's most talented receiving units.
Perennial pro bowler Antonio Brown has had another good statistical year, catching 90 passes for 1,112 yards and 13 touchdowns. Brown has the ability to beat a secondary at every level, and is the offense's focal point. He has been complimented by the talents of second year wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster, who leads the team with 95 receptions for 1,274 yards, six scores, and seven games of over 100 yards. Smith-Schuster may miss this game though, due to a groin injury sustained in practice.
The Steelers have good depth at the position that can threaten defenses though, with rookie James Washington, slot threat Ryan Switzer, and deep threat Eli Rogers. Tight end Vance McDonald has emerged as a big play threat for Pittsburgh's offense, catching 46 balls for 522 yards and 4 touchdowns, and has been able to stretch defenses down the middle of the field.
~ Matchup to Watch: Marshon Lattimore/Eli Apple vs. Antonio Brown ~
The likely absence of Smith-Schuster will mean an even heavier reliance on Brown, often a focus of defenses anyway. The Saints will try to match Lattimore or Apple on him whenever possible, with the expectation that the other defensive backs can win their match ups with the Steeler threats. Roethlisberger has a tendency to force the ball to Brown even when tightly covered, so the New Orleans secondary will have opportunities to make big plays.
SAINTS RUN DEFENSE vs. STEELERS RUN OFFENSE
The Saints run defense has been dominant, ranking first in the league, surrendering only 75 yards per game, and allowing just 3.7 yards per carry. An underrated front seven has ravaged the line of scrimmage and made every opponent one dimensional, giving easy opportunity for their pass rush.
Linebacker Demario Davis leads the team with 103 tackles, and is a fierce sideline to sideline defender. He, Anzalone, and Klein have shut down plays in the gap, routinely making plays in the opposing backfields. The Saints defensive line has been able to wreck offensive lines. Defensive tackles Rankins, Taylor Stallworth, Onyemata and Tyeler Davison have gotten penetration off the snap, while ends Cam Jordan and Okafor have crashed inside to eliminate cutback lanes.
New Orleans’ secondary provides solid run support, and outstanding team defense have completely shut down big-time backs like Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey.
Pittsburgh averages just 94 yards per game on the ground, ranking 30th. The Steelers have been without holdout running back Le'Veon Bell all season, but replacement James Conner was on his way to a 1,000 rushing season before being shelved with an ankle injury. The Steelers had gone four straight games rushing well under 100 yards before rookie Jaylen Samuels broke through for 142 yards in a victory over the New England Patriots last week.
~ Matchup to Watch: Saints defensive line vs. Steelers offensive line ~
Pittsburgh has a Pro Bowl trio up front in guard David DeCastro, center Maurkice Pouncey, and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, along with guard Ramon Foster, but New Orleans counters with All-Pro Jordan, Pro Bowl snub Rankins, and emerging star Davenport. Jordan will be matched up most often with Steelers right tackle Matt Feiler, a possible mismatch. Both lines present a major challenge to the other, with the winner likely able to dictate the balance of the game.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Roethlisberger is an old-fashioned gunslinger, able to make a back breaking big play, or crippling turnover at any time. Pittsburgh has turned the ball over 23 times this season, while New Orleans has forced multiple turnovers in six of their last eight contests. The Saints must shut down the Steelers running game early, likely forcing them into a pass heavy approach early on.
If the Saints can hold up in coverage and get pressure up front, Roethlisberger often forces his passes to Brown in multiple coverage, sometimes leading to big mistakes in crucial moments. New Orleans has been outstanding with in-game adjustments, particularly to start the second halves of games. This defense has evolved into a championship caliber unit, able to cover up for some of the team's offensive inconsistencies in the last month. They will be challenged by one of the AFC's best offenses, but the Saints have the defensive playmakers to make a statement throughout the NFL as the playoffs approach.
What is the biggest defensive key for the Saints defense against the Pittsburgh offense?
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Jordan/Davenport/Okafor vs. Feiler/Villanueva
Rankins/Saints DT's vs. Pouncey/Foster/DeCastro
Davis/Anzalone/Klein vs. Samuels
Lattimore/Apple/Williams vs. Brown/Washington/Switzer
Saints safeties vs. Steelers TE's